FrontierVille, like its predecessor FarmVille, is more of a habit than a game
To many people -- including reviews editor Tae Kim whom I had to cajole into allowing this review -- FrontierVille and any other product from developer Zynga aren't real games. Rather, they are a shameless microtransaction racket designed to confuse bored non-gamers into buying virtual pets and decorations with real money for no better reason than showing off to other Facebook friends. Zynga profits immensely from this model in a way that raises eyebrows both inside the video games industry and out. It's newsworthy, sure -- but review-worthy? Why review a microtransaction system, especially when the only people likely to find it helpful are non-gamers?
- Well thought-out resource management, very pretty graphics, gay marriage is possible
- Buggy, friends system isn't as well thought-out, item drops get suspiciously rare during quests that require them
In many ways, reviewing FrontierVille presents the same challenge to a video games critic as reviewing a massively multiplayer online game: it's an ever-changing game that you can't win where most of the gameplay experience rests on interactions with other players. Whereas MMOs are at least seen as games worthy of the reviews section, however, FrontierVille faces another hurdle: the Facebook stigma.
I persisted in asking Kim to review FrontierVille for three reasons. First, it's a weak effort to cover my shame; I started playing the game as research for a podcast, and when I couldn't stop, I felt like I needed a more valid reason to continue (and to spend US$10 on a bundle of in-game currency). Second, my high school sweetheart -- now married with children back in my hometown of Houston, Texas -- became my FrontierVille neighbour last week. This marks the confluence of so many points in my life that I have to think of the game as significant. Third, this is an honest effort to legitimise games like FrontierVille in the eyes of gamers; millions of people play games like FarmVille, logging as many if not more hours than dedicated World of Warcraft gamers. What's wrong with acknowledging Facebook games as games like any other?
We’ll start with addiction. FrontierVille, like its predecessor FarmVille, is more of a habit than a game. It drops you into a virtual space and asks you to complete small tasks like clearing brush and rocks away to create arable land. Then, through a series of quests, you're invited to plant crops, raise animals, build buildings, buy decorations, and obtain extra characters -- mostly to the purpose of opening up more quests and showing off to friends just how much virtual stuff you have on your homestead.
The "game" part of this experience comes from resource management and item drops. The primary resources in the game are wood, food, coins, and energy. Wood comes from chopping trees and clearing thorns and is used as currency to build buildings. Food -- in the form of pie -- comes from tending crops, animals, or trees and is used to purchase meals from the Market the restore the energy gauge. Coins are the standard in-game currency that drop from just about every task and can be used to purchase many (but not all) items in the Market. Energy, which regenerates over time, is the currency you spend each time you want your character to do something like pull a weed or clobber a snake.
Item drops add a layer of complexity. Wood, food, coins, and energy will drop from certain tasks like tending crops, but experience points and collection items only come from completing certain tasks. For example, clearing grass might net you broken pottery, arrowheads, or eagle feathers; gaining enough of those completes the Clearing Collection which you can trade in for wood, food, coins, experience points, or energy rewards depending on the type of collection. Additionally, certain quests will require you to find certain items or craft them using items you find while completing tasks around the homestead.
The strategy comes from trying to do as much as you can around the homestead with the limited energy gauge. Knowing that certain tasks might give you more energy -- like harvesting fruit trees -- makes you more likely to repeat those tasks; however, there are diminishing returns on experience points for repeating some tasks like planting the same crop over and over again. Additionally, each time you click on an item drop to obtain it, a bonus gauge fills up on screen. Keep clicking item drops, and the gauge goes higher and higher for bonus chains that give you more coins. Collecting enough experience points to level up also nets you a huge coin bonus and refills your energy gauge entirely, thus resetting the chain of behaviour.
On its own, FrotnierVille's solo gameplay is a pretty well thought-out habit-forming system -- but then you've got the friend factor. This is where many people feel FarmVille becomes a shame game; you want your farm to look better than your friend's farm or at least not look as bad in comparison with rotted crops lying around. Moreover, there's a kibbutz system in place where more friends means more people can visit your virtual farm and help tend your crops or send you items as gifts to use on the farm. FrontierVille carries a bit of that shame culture with the tending and gifting system, but it also adds a network of resource management and item drops directly to visitation.
Each day, every user can visit neighbours that they've accepted through friend requests on Facebook and perform five tasks on their homestead. You can have an unlimited number of neighbours and visit as many as you want, but you only receive bonuses for visiting a certain number, and you can only perform five tasks per day on any neighbour's homestead. Performing tasks on a neighbour's homestead always wins you reputation currency -- the more of that a player has, the more times per day they get bonuses for visiting neighbours.
This is where FrontierVille runs into trouble: the neighbour system is more of a chore than the actual chores on the homestead. Sure, you get stuff for visiting neighbours; but it's rarely the stuff you need and it's difficult to negotiate with other players. For example, all buildings require building materials like paint or nails that can only come as gifts from neighbours. FrontierVille has a wish list system in game where you can view what your neighbours want and send it to them if it's in your inventory -- but rarely will you want to sacrifice something from your own inventory to help a friend (hey, you need nails as much as they do!). Like FarmVille, there is a Free Gift section where you can send certain items once per day to other users without having to sacrifice the item from your own inventory -- but there are only ever two or three scarce items available on that list and it can take months to amass enough paint to finish a barn.
What happens then is bargaining outside of FrontierVille. On one occasion, I spoke to a coworker in real life who needed ribbons to complete a quest; I told him to send me only hammers and I would send him only ribbons. On another occasion, a quest wanted me to tend 15 neighbour tomatoes, but that crop has a fast growth rate at 15 minutes, which means I'd be unlikely to find it in season on a neighbour's homestead. I had to call a friend on the phone and ask her to let 15 tomato plants rot in her field so I could get to them and tend them whenever I happened to login next. In exchange, I grew an oak tree for her to chop down to complete one of her quests that couldn’t be done on her own homestead.
The friend interaction system is imperfect, but it's not flawed enough to discourage gameplay or to encourage Zynga to update it (perhaps by introducing a trading system). As an infrequent habit, it succeeds only because the game keeps sending you invitations to go help out on others' homesteads -- and when you run out of energy on your own homestead, there's not much else to do, anyway.
That's all there is to FrontierVille, essentially. You perform the same tasks every day, receiving the same rewards and you keep doing it despite never being able to "win."
This is where there's more to FrontierVille than a habit, though: I know that I'll never "win" the game, but participating in it, I am a part of something -- something so big that it connects me to a high school ex to whom I haven't spoken in seven years. The fact that so many others enjoy FrontierVille (or at least seem to, given how much virtual stuff they have) gives me the impression that I enjoy it, too.
There is a certain amusement, in fact, that comes from walking by my coworker's desk and hearing him lament a sudden attack of groundhogs during a clover harvest. Nobody else in this office knows what he's talking about except me -- and in that way, we are connected the same as we are when we talk about our exploits in Red Dead Redemption or other "real" games. That, more than anything, is why I wanted to review FrontierVille. The connections it forms between people -- even people who think of themselves as non-gamers -- are as real and valid as the connections gamers form over their favourite games. The cliquish, snobby attitude that sense of connection creates is what defines gamer to many non-gamers -- and so I say to you non-gamer FrontierVille players who somehow found your way to this review on a video games criticism site: welcome to the club.
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